Monday, June 27, 2016

German Is Difficult

In preparation for my trip to Switzerland in August, each day I have been studying some German on DuoLingo.  I have gone through fifteen lessons, although at this point, I am reviewing the old lessons to try to make the material stick in my brain.  The website tells me that I am 29% fluent in German, which I find quite laughable.  I have under my belt perhaps a hundred words and phrases, and I have memorized fairly well the conjugation in the present tense of a handful of verbs.  But I consider myself anything but fluent!

English, in spite of its many words of Latin and French derivation, is a Germanic language, and it is interesting to see similarities.  For example, it's easy to remember that "hund" is the German word for dog since we have the word "hound".  Some sentences such as "Wir trinken Tee" actually sound quite similar to the English translation... "We're drinking tea."

However, in spite of the similarities, I am finding German to be rather difficult.

I am struggling with the pronunciation.  I am used to Spanish which is a very phonetic language.  The vowel sounds are very crisp and clear, and the consonants, with some notable exceptions, are fairly similar to English.  However, German pronunciation, as in English, is a bit of a mess.  Vowel sounds seem indistinct and muddy, and I still haven't got a handle on what that umlaut (the two dots over a vowel) does to the pronunciation.  The consonants are not much better.  I have figured out that an "s" at the beginning of a word sounds like our "z" and that a "d" at the end of a word sounds like a "t".  I find myself simply memorizing the pronunciation of each individual word, and I am sure that I would butcher any word that I have not learned.

Another difficulty is with gender.  My Spanish students used to find it odd that every noun is either masculine or feminine.  You have to memorize the gender of each word, but there are rules that make that easier.  You can usually bet that a noun ending in "o" is masculine and that one ending in "a" is feminine.  In German there are three genders... masculine, feminine and neuter, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it.  Why is the German word for "girl" neuter?   Inanimate objects are often neuter... for example, "Essen" (food) is neuter.  But many other objects are masculine or feminine.  "Sonne" (sun) is feminine, but "Mond" (moon) is masculine.  And it is important to know the gender of a word because the definite and indefinite articles change according to the gender of the word with which they are used.  So it's "das Essen" (the food), "die Sonne" (the sun) and "der Mond" (the moon).

Making a noun plural is also difficult, although there are rules that govern that.  Some words add an "e".  "Brot" (bread) becomes "Brote".  Others add an "er".  "Kind" (child) becomes "Kinder".  And other words add an "n" or "en".  "Frau" (woman) becomes "Frauen".  Many times making a word plural will also require putting an umlaut over the vowel, and that changes the pronunciation.  I am still scratching my head over the word "Buch" (book).  The plural is "Bucher" with an umlaut.  For the life of me it sounds like they are saying "boo-ya".  

I realize that the English language is just as strange.  Now that I have dipped my toe into the study of German, I can better sympathize with a Spanish-speaking person trying to learn the vagarities of our language.

In spite of it all, I am enjoying my German lessons, and I intend to keep plodding along. 

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